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Michael Bisping at UFC London weigh-ins. Credit Jorden Curran/MMA PLUS

A national flag is seen as a sacred representation of a specific country’s values, traditions and beliefs. It is held in highest regards by the citizens, an important symbol of their pride and national identity and any attempt to belittle or desecrate a flag can draw widespread ire and vitrolic outpouring from any chosen nation.

It is for this reason that the hot topic coming out of UFC 213 was not Robert Whittaker’s title triumph or the late cancellation of the women’s bantamweight championship main event. Instead, both were overshadowed by Michael Bisping’s actions, tearing up the Cuban flag cage side, mocking rival Yoel Romero between rounds in the latter’s unsuccessful battle to win the interim-middleweight crown.

The current middleweight champion is no stranger to controversy and has played the pantomime villain role well throughout his decade-long UFC career. Whether it be spitting at Jorge Rivera’s cornermen after landing an illegal knee strike to the American at UFC 127 or using the homophobic slur “fa***t” to describe middleweight contender Luke Rockhold, the Brit has always been happy to push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable. This time however, many people around the globe would agree that Bisping has not dipped his toe over the line of decency, but has hopped, skipped and jumped yards over it with such a blatant example of disrespect to not only his fellow fighter, but the entire country of Cuba.

The first signs that Bisping may have crossed the line were apparent during the UFC 213 post-fight press conference. When questioned about Bisping tearing up the Cuban flag, Romero’s face suddenly changed as he adopted a deathly stare that could’ve burned a hole through anyone who dared cross his gaze. The unfortunate recipient on this occasion was MMAFighting.com’s Ariel Helwani who was unlucky enough to have asked the question. He spoke softly but menacingly as it was clear that the actions of Bisping had not only offended the former Olympian but enraged him.

What veteran trash talker Bisping may not have realised at the time, is just how severe and disrespectful the tearing up of a national flag is considered in the fiercely nationalist Central American country. Cuba only gained independence in recent history and was ruled over by Spain since the colonial invasion of 1511 and then a dictator-led government which was supported by the United States of America from 1898. Both of these establishments were fought on different occasions by the Cuban revolutionaries as the proud nation fought many times in the attempts to achieve its independence from foreign invaders.

The first attempt was The Ten-Year War (1868-1878), however the movement was unsuccessful with Spain reneging on most of the reforms promised in the war-ending Pact of Zanjón signed in 1878. In the years that followed, “Father of the Cuban Nation” José Martí, who was a poet and a statesman, concocted the cohesive political ideology that was lacking during the first attempt. Backed by American capitalists, the country’s nationalist revolutionaries once again went to war in 1895 and this better-organised movement came very close to victory until it was stolen from under their noses by another foreign nation. The U.S. invaded Cuba, declaring their own war on Spain in 1898, and would take control of the country through military occupation.

Periods of unrest followed with military coups and uprisings resulting in the U.S. backed dictator Fulgencio Batista taking control of the country and ousting the elected president in 1952. Anger among nationalists was high at the United States’ backing of the brutal regime, and soon, the third and final conflict for the country’s freedom was underway. Waging guerilla warfare on the dictator’s forces, thousands of Cubans led by lawyer Fidel Castro took control of the country through the nationalist and socialist teachings handed down by Matrí.

Cuba was finally recognised as a free country as of January 1, 1959 and although Castro eventually installed a dictatorship of his own, he never abandoned the strong ideology of Cuban pride and nationalism which had led so many to rally behind him. It was this that ensured he remained the figurehead of his nation and immensely popular despite his totalitarian rule until his death in 2016. The strong feeling of Cuban identity that Castro had installed throughout the country was no more apparent than in the three symbols he chose, not only to represent the country but also to pay tribute to the struggle for independence.

The national flag of Cuba, which Bisping tore up, is one of these symbols and contains a white star imposed on a red triangle to symbolise the Masonic lodges in which the first struggles against the Spanish regime were organised. The middleweight champion did not just tear up a flag, but a national symbol of identity, pride and most importantly remembrance for those who gave their lives for a long-fought cause.

In retaliation, Romero has taken to social media and posted a video of himself burning a picture of Bisping with the British ‘Union Jack’ flag and lighting a cigar with it. Although we are largely desensitised to that imagery in the United Kingdom, which has been seen on our streets during riots and protests for the last century, when it comes to sports, it can elicit a more outraged response.

In 2015, football player James McClean caused a storm when he chose to turn away from the British flag and bow his head during the British national anthem due to his Irish nationalist beliefs when playing for West Bromwich Albion. After the pre-season friendly, the British media was filled with outrage, the most strong stating McClean was “disgraceful” and “should go home” if that’s how he felt. Despite merely turning away through personal choice, many saw this as massively disrespectful. Imagine the reaction had he torn up the British flag on television.

Similar incidents have happened Stateside in recent years with NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick treated like a pariah for his national anthem protests against racial inequality, and even in the UFC, with Chris Weidman being largely chastised on social media for wiping his nose on the flag he was wearing post-fight.

Some people may defend the actions of Bisping and Romero as pro wrestling style feud building, however even the outrageous and controversial owner of WWE, Vince McMahon, has brought a hard line against the desecration of a national flag.

Shawn Michaels may have gotten away with picking his nose using the Canadian flag during the promotion’s slide towards the X-rated “Attitude Era” in the mid-nineties. However, the same can’t be said for Chris Jericho, when during the WWE’s first ever trip to Brazil in 2012, he was made to publicly apologise and handed a 30-day suspension for throwing the Brazilian flag to the ground, wiping his feet on it and kicking it across the ring. In the soap opera stylings of WWE, it was all to garner heat from the local crowd, however he got more than he bargained for when the Brazilians nearly started a riot, and the police threatened to arrest Jericho over what they say, was an illegal act. The reaction of the natives was so fierce that Jericho was forced to break kayfabe by management (the act of breaking character and persona and is usually frowned upon) and publicly apologise for his actions.

When even the WWE has to take action on such issues, one would assume the proudly multicultural and international UFC would follow suit. Instead, they have glorified the incident through their social media channels, and by doing so, have condoned the actions of both fighters despite the offence it has already caused. In a legitimate sport, where fighter’s nationalities are a big part of their identity; often paraded on their Reebok fight kits, the desecration of any national symbol or flag has to be off limits just as it would be at the FIFA World Cup or in Formula One. If the sport of mixed martial arts is ever to be recognised alongside its peers then it is incidents like this which have to be acted on and stamped out.

If the antics of Bisping and Romero involved a flag bearing the stars and stripes, one has to wonder if the promotion would have taken a harder stance. Regardless of the countries involved, it is clear that a precedent needs to be set in the resolution of this drama.